University’s elder statesman built his career on building agriculture school
In 1949, when Dr. Ulysses S. Washington Jr. took a job as an assistant professor of agriculture at what was then Delaware State College, he thought he might last a year or two in Dover.
The college was in trouble and enrollment was down. Several professors already had quit and the institution was being stripped of its accreditation.
Washington thought he might be forced to return to work at his father’s sawmill in central Virginia, where he’d spent his summers during college.
But despite his initial plan to stay on for a year, collect his contracted salary and move on, Washington stuck with the ailing school and made a 60-year career of helping the humble college grow into a prestigious university.
Though he retired from the university in 1991, Washington has remained active in the school community. In December, he was honored for his work in agricultural education and inducted into the George Washington Carver Public Service Hall of Fame at Tuskegee University.
Retired university Provost Dr. Kenneth Bell, who succeeded Washington as chair of the Department of Agriculture and Environmental Studies upon his retirement, said Washington is more than just a longstanding academic.
“I think he had a major impact. He did a lot of things, not just those things that were part of his job description per se, but he did a lot of things for the university,” Bell said. “He was a mentor to me and to number of students.”
During his tenure, Washington filled all manner of positions at Delaware State University, from professor to department head, and bus driver to head football coach.
“I did what I could do within the context of the job description, except the football, that was not in the job description,” Washington said.
Though his main duties as a 29-year-old faculty member fresh out of a master’s program at Rutgers were teaching courses in poultry and agricultural mechanics to a half dozen students each semester, Washington quickly found himself tied to other facets of university life — football was an easy fit.
“It was my fault. I was looking out the window at a couple of coaches out there coaching … so I went out and mentioned to the coaches that I had played a little football and if it was possible I would like to be part of their coaching staff,” he remembered. “It was 18 years that I stayed out there.”
But in the late 1960s, Washington set his sights on fundraising, and when he was named department head in 1969 he made soliciting money his top priority.
Washington used Delaware State’s status as a historically black 1890 Land Grant institution to apply for numerous grants from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and by the late 1970s building was booming on campus and enrollment was soaring.
Bell, who joined the faculty in 1969, said the department’s growth hinged on Washington’s management style: hands-off, but intensely supportive.
“He used to say that he felt his role was to make things available for the faculty and the students and to recruit the right people to do it, and then he would step aside and allow it to happen,” Bell said.
In the same way Washington frequently worked outside his job description, he often went above and beyond for his students and faculty.
“I saw Dr. Washington do a number of things to help students that had financial problems,” Bell said. “I remember one case where he cosigned for one student on a car, and he certainly didn’t have to do that.”
Bell was often astonished at Washington’s uniquely Socratic way of providing students with guidance and advice.
“He would never really tell them what to do,” Bell said. “He had a way of asking questions that would get them to see the answer. I talked with him a number of times and he was asking questions and then I didn’t realize until after I after I walked away and thought about it, this guy just gave me some major advice.”
Washington, now 88, still lives in the same small, white campus house he moved into in 1969, tucked under a tall tree across a parking lot from the stately brick College of Agriculture and Related Sciences administration building that bears his name. The university president has assured him that the house is his for as long as he would like to live there.
In his capacity as elder statesman, he still makes regular visits with Dr. Dyremple Marsh, who took over as dean of the College of Agriculture in 2007.
“Dr. Washington has the institution’s interests at heart every day that he awakes,” Marsh said. “We really treasure having the ability to call on him or to visit with him from time to time.
“He wants to make sure that [the department], I call it his baby, is still being nourished and nurtured. He always has good advice and, knowing that, I seek his advice.”
But for as much change as he’s seen in his 60 years at Delaware State, there are some things that Washington said he’s certain will stay the same, not the least of which is the university’s character as an historically black institution.
“There’s been some noise about it losing its identity, but we’ll never lose our identity, never,” he said.
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